Monday 26 September 2016

United dine at top table as Rooney ends goal famine

Man Utd 3-0 Sunderland

Mark Ogden

Published 28/09/2015 | 02:30

John O’Shea battles it out with Anthony Martial at Old Trafford
John O’Shea battles it out with Anthony Martial at Old Trafford
Sunderland's Lee Cattermole receives a booking for this challenge on Manchester United's French midfielder Morgan Schneiderlin
Manchester United's Dutch manager Louis van Gaal talks to Sunderland's assistant manager Zeljko Petrovic
Wayne Rooney ended his goal drought

If there was a clear indicator of it being business as usual at Manchester United after returning to the summit of the Premier League for the first time in two-and-a-half years, the lack of fanfare said it all.

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There were, mercifully, no selfies posted on social media of players pointing to the Premier League table or talk of the club being 'back where we belong'.

If anything, claiming top spot with a 3-0 victory against a seemingly-doomed Sunderland was met with a collective shrug of the shoulders.

"We are all playing to being number one at the end of the season and it's nice to be there now," admitted United captain Wayne Rooney

"But there's a long way to go, it's still early days and we have to keep working hard to make sure we finish there at the end of the season."

Rooney, perhaps because he has five Premier League winners' medals already tucked away, was keen to keep a lid on the significance of going top, six games into the season.

But while Louis van Gaal and his players maintain that these are early days, there were signs against Sunderland that United may, at the very least, be ready to challenge again after two years on the dark side of the moon since Alex Ferguson's retirement.

For the first time since Ferguson left his position in May 2013, United have ended a Premier League weekend at the top of the table.

At the end of September 2013 under David Moyes, United languished in 12th position, eight points adrift of the leaders.

A year ago, as Van Gaal took his first faltering steps in the job, United were seventh, but once again, eight points behind the pacesetters.

A one-point lead now is promising, but any United supporters who risk becoming intoxicated by their current position should perhaps wait until the end of October before planning a party in May.

Three away games, at Arsenal, Everton and Crystal Palace, will measure United's progress, while the one home league fixture next month - against Manchester City - will arguably provide the litmus test of their credentials.

If it proves to be a red October, United will legitimately be considered as title contenders, but for Van Gaal, the only issue is the ongoing development of his team.

"We have a good team, but we can win and lose," Van Gaal said. "You need luck, but I don't have to wait until October [to judge our quality].

"Next week we have Arsenal away and I think it is one of the most difficult teams to beat in the Premier League, but we won there last year, so it is possible.

"I think that Manchester United can win against every team, but you need also luck." While Sunderland's desperate lack of quality cannot be discounted, the sense of this being a United team on the rise is also difficult to ignore.

David de Gea's presence in goal gives United solidity and assurance, while Daley Blind's reading of the game and Chris Smalling's blossoming confidence have seen an impressive central defensive partnership emerge in recent weeks.

Matteo Darmian appeared as composed at left-back as he does on the right, Morgan Schneiderlin offers tenacity and presence in midfield and Anthony Martial, the 19-year-old centre-forward, seems to have knitted it all together with his ability to lead the line.

Martial did not score against Sunderland, but the Frenchman was outstanding as he showcased his physical strength, pace and awareness while acting as a hub for Rooney, Memphis Depay and Juan Mata.

Precision

Blind's precision passing led to United's first two goals, with Mata offloading a 50-yard ball from the Dutchman for Depay to score the opener in first-half stoppage time.

And it was Blind who instigated the move for United's second, on 46 minutes, when Rooney bundled Martial's cross into the net with his right knee.

It was Rooney's first league goal since April, and came precisely 1,000 minutes after his last, but it also took him to five goals in all competitions this season, so the statistics can be interpreted however you wish.

"I wasn't worried," Rooney said. "It's my fifth of the season for United and I've scored for England too, so it was just about getting off the mark in the league."

By the time Mata scored United's third, from Ashley Young's cross, in the 90th minute, Sunderland were already beaten.

Telegraph.co.uk

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